PALMETTO -- The Florida Department of Environmental Protection had always required a protective layer of dirt over gypsum stacks to prevent cracking and leaks -- until Piney Point.
But then the state agency wavered and for the first time allowed HRK Holdings LLC to go without the safeguard, a DEP official said.
Some environmental experts believe the soil barrier -- commonly used on dredging reservoirs of that size -- would have prevented the leak that polluted 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor.
The DEP also confirmed it never notified Port Manatee of a February 2011 tear in the liner used to store material from the port's Berth 12 dredging project. A similar rip just three months later was responsible for the massive spill, according to emails and documents obtained by the Herald.
Those two decisions have many stakeholders now questioning how the agency handled the project, with a liner system never designed to support dredging storage in the first place.
DEP officials stand by their actions, and despite the initial rupture, they still say moving ahead with the work was the right call at the time.
"I don't think anybody expected that leak to happen," said John Coates, who now works in DEP's waste management division but served as deputy director of water
resource management during the spill.
"You have to go back and ask the tough questions of what could we have known or what could we have done differently. But at the time, we were all confident the project would work."
Piney Point is a former phosphate facility. Its sole purpose was housing dredging storage from Berth 12.
The project officially opened South Port, the focus of a $200 million decade-long Port Manatee expansion to allow for larger cargo ships in accordance with the Panama Canal extension.
The dredging was completed in October, but while the work was underway, liners and pipes that housed the dredged material sprung leaks, gushing 2,700 gallons of water a minute into Bishop Harbor on Tampa Bay.
HRK filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late June over the expenses tied to the environmental fallout, also suing the port and makers of the gypsum stack liners.
A court battle for HRK's remaining assets is now underway from 60 creditors owed $21 million by the embattled firm.
But a series of Bradenton Herald reports show the disaster could have been averted had the state stopped the dredging project once the first tear was discovered or stuck to procedures that mandate exterior dirt covers.
Soil protection is commonly used to blanket dredging storage liners and guard against sun cracks, while also lessening corrosion from rainwater and cushioning contact with heavy equipment.
The DEP was going to install a dirt cover over the stacks after the phosphate facility had closed, but when HRK bought the site, the state instead ordered the private company to do it.
The amount of dirt needed to roof the massive 350-acre structure carried an estimated price tag upwards of $4 million, when soil prices were high because of surging new home construction, records show.
An 11-page administrative agreement signed between HRK and the DEP waived that requirement in August 2006, also handing HRK full responsibility should anything go wrong.
A study later commissioned by HRK found that heat-induced stress cracks had penetrated the gypsum stack liner months before it ever was filled with water, contributing to the cause of the liner tears.
Coates, who oversaw the case for the DEP, said he expected the dredged material itself to serve in place of the cover, protecting the reservoir from the inside out.
That was the first time the agency had tested the theory. And an environmental attorney says it should have known better.
"The DEP made some very questionable decisions," said Thomas Reese, a St. Petersburg attorney who has followed the Piney Point case.
"Why they would do that, whether they were being pressured, I don't know. I never thought it was a good idea to just assume that liner wouldn't rip. Turns out you have attorneys battling it out in bankruptcy court."
Even if the idea had worked, it would not have prevented damage from heavy machinery on top of the gypsum stack or served as protection until the reservoir was completely full, he said.
Signs of problems with the liner also were detected months before the dredging began.
A 6-inch tear along a seam in the southwest corner of the reservoir was discovered in February 2011, after a crane had fallen onto the gypsum stack, according to HRK documents. Although the tear wasn't a result of the crane accident, it was spotted when the state ordered a complete inspection of the massive 350-acre structure. The tear wasn't fully resolved until mid-April, just weeks before the liner was used to store 13 million cubic yards of dredged sludge.
DEP officials didn't see the initial tear as a cause for concern, never delaying the project or running tests for the cause. Studies later blamed both tears on improper welding at the liner's seams.
The DEP also never notified port staff of the February rip, and Manatee County commissioners, who serve as the Port Authority, first learned of the previous problems when contacted by the newspaper last week.
"Of course, we would have wanted to know if there was a problem with the liner," Port Chairman Larry Bustle said. "The whole idea (of putting dredge material in the stacks) I thought was a pretty bold move, and at the time I thought it was a good move, but this might have changed the decision."
Port officials have declined to comment on Piney Point, citing pending litigation with HRK. HRK CEO Jordan Levy also has stopped answering questions about the spill.
The port is seeking repayment from HRK on a $4.8 million settlement signed between the port and the dredging contractor, which had sued over the extra costs.
A 2009 report issued by the makers and installers of the gypsum stack assured all parties involved the chances of a leak were essentially nil.
"The port people probably should have been able to look and understand what was happening," said Jim Mikes, whose company is owed $250,000 by HRK. "It was a risky proposition, and the worst thing we thought could happen was exactly what happened."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.